Reading and Translating, Part I

salvēte, amīcī sodālēsque, and welcome back!  Thank you so much for your comments, your emails, and (above all) continuing to read and to follow.  I won’t blame you if you stop after today, though! 🙂  We’ll be looking at a hot-button issue in this post and the next.

Yesterday I said of Tres Columnae that

We’ll focus on comprehension, a measurable skill, rather than translation, a collection of many skills.

If you’re among the growing number of non-Classicist readers, you may wonder why that statement was necessary. If you’re a Classicist, though, you may wonder how a non-translation approach to Latin would even be possible. Today I hope to address both of these perspectives – and I hope I don’t end up antagonizing everyone! 🙂  If you are antagonized, though, please feel free to leave a vitriolic comment … I promise I won’t delete it.  (Now, if it’s a spam comment, I make no such guarantees.)

First, for the non-Classicists in the audience, you may not realize how much Latin pedagogy relies on translation. This wasn’t always the case – from the fall of the Roman Empire until at least the 19th century, Latin was taught by a direct or immersion method.  After all, the primary purpose of learning the language was to use it – in international communication, in the Church,in scholarly writing, or perhaps in reading some of the many centuries’ worth of Latin literature that continued to be written at that time.

As the first of these goals became slowly less relevant, however, and as German philologists like Wilamowitz pursued the fundamental principles of language – and came to view Ciceronian and Vergilian style as the highest, the best, and perhaps the only true form of the language –  the grammar-translation approach emerged as the new, progressive way to teach Latin in this modern age. No longer was the emphasis on oral communication (since, after all, fewer people needed to communicate in Latin) or even on extensive reading (since the idea was to focus on the “best” Latin available).  Now the goal was to “read very slowly” (as a dear friend of mine has put it), pausing to analyze every grammatical feature,  with a view to discussing their effects.  Full disclosure: I love philological discussions, and I encourage my face-to-face students to have them.  But they’re not the only thing you can do with a Latin text!  Apparently it was Sir Francis Bacon who said,

“Some books are to be tasted, others swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Of course, after 120 years or more, the “new, progressive” approach has become the “old-fashioned” approach, or even the One Right Way to Do Things. In 1810, no one would have imagined a purely grammar-translation approach to Latin; in 2010, many cannot imagine any other approach.

By contrast, most modern-language educators have long since abandoned the grammar-translation approach, usually on the grounds that it doesn’t work – or at least, it doesn’t work as well as the alternatives like

By “doesn’t work,” modern-language educators really mean, “doesn’t suit our goals.”  After all, if you teach a modern foreign language, the purpose is usually to help students communicate with native speakers, using all four skills:

  • listening,
  • speaking,
  • reading, and
  • writing

and all three discourse modes

  • interpersonal,
  • interpretive, and
  • presentational.

It’s obvious that a grammar-translation approach isn’t an efficient way to meet these goals!  After all, these goals are not the point of grammar-translation; they’re the point of the direct method that grammar-translation replaced!  No wonder Classicists and modern-language teachers sometimes have trouble communicating with each other!

And that is why so many Classicists continue to defend grammar-translation as a reasonable way, or even the “best way,” to meet their more limited linguistic goals, such as:

  • a primary focus on reading (since that’s the one way Latin learners can come in contact with native speakers), and writing to a lesser extent;
  • a primary focus on the interpretive mode; and
  • a strong secondary focus on literary analysis, which requires close attention to grammatical features.

Other Classicists, of course, argue that the “best way” to meet these goals is

  • one of the alternatives listed above,
  • the good old “direct method,” which is pretty close to immersion,
  • the “reading method,” which is similar, but more influenced by linguistic advances in the 1960’s and 1970’s, or
  • some combination.

Unfortunately, since each group is convinced it has the “best way,” or even the One Right Way, we tend to disagree with each other, sometimes vocally.

As in so many other areas, Tres Columnae aims for higher ground. Personally, I don’t disagree with the aims of the grammar-translation advocates, just as I don’t disagree with the musical choices – or the practice routines – of my friend the almost-professional pianist. But my children, who are fairly young piano students, aren’t yet ready to play what he plays, or to practice the way he practices! And I don’t think my beginning Latin students are ready for a graduate seminar about a Roman poet!

In other words, while a grammar-translation approach might be a perfectly reasonable way to process Latin once you’re a proficient reader, I don’t think it’s the best way for most prospective Tres Columnae participants (or most young language learners) to learn the language ab initio.  That doesn’t mean they’ll never translate, or that they’ll never analyze grammatical features.  In fact, Tres Columnae participants will do a lot of grammatical analysis – and a lot of language production – as well as a lot of reading, comprehension, literary analysis, and creative work in response to their readings.  They may even translate from time to time.  But just as my favorite-and-only children didn’t play MacDowell or even Rachmaninoff when they first sat at the piano, Tres Columnae participants won’t begin with grammatical analysis and translation.

quid respondētis, lectōrēs cārissimī?  Have I lost you completely, with raging disagreement?  Or can you envision a world where beginning students do something other than a pure grammar-translation approach … even if you’re not sure exactly what that would look like?

If not grammar-translation, though, what?  That’s what we’ll consider in our next post.  Tune in shortly for more.

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 12:19 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. For what it’s worth, Justin, I can just say that it seems we are in total agreement about this issue. Plus, I really appreciate the historical overview you have provided here: Classics is very good at “covering its tracks,” so to speak, and pretending that the discipline of Classics is “timeless,” when of course it is not timeless at all. Timelessness is a claim that is important to the discipline of Classics in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons… but it is something that never rings true for me.

    My apologia – I was never a Classics insider: I learned Latin only because I wanted to read Renaissance Latin texts (ancient Rome interested me neither more nor less than any other culture), and I was primarily a student of living languages (Russian and Polish) with dead languages a distant second. Over time, however, I have ended up more firmly in the world of Latin and Greek… but still very much outside the discipline of Classics. As for the Classics true believers, of whom there are many, it seems to be very hard for them to understand those of who are outsiders, even those of us outsiders who have good intentions (such misunderstanding is why, for example, I will never be allowed to teach Latin at my university).

    I really appreciate the fact that you are creating a space here where – I hope – both Classics insiders and outsiders can feel at home and make their contributions. We all have something to contribute and, if we are to succeed, I think we need to pool our contributions and work together as much as possible. There are so many forces working against studiousness in our world – any kind of studiousness – and learning Latin is not an easy task. I really hope that Tres Columnae will be a place where people can get and give help with that task, and find a value in what we are learning together! 🙂

    • Hi again, Laura,
      In my continuing effort to respond to every comment, let me just say that I’m glad you agree. It’s also a big concern to me that Classics, as a discipline, is so ignorant of the history of its own pedagogy. Grammar-translation, as a method, is so obviously a late-Enlightenment Germanic approach with a strong dose of early Romanticism … we can “know” and “derive” universal “principles” of language, and those principles are somehow superior to the actual examples of the language used, over the years, by native and near-native speakers and writers! Yet we Classicists think (or some of us think) that Cicero learned Latin by a grammar-translation method! 😦 In fact, of course, the historical record — and in Erasmus’ case, the surviving Colloquia and other learning materials — make it quite clear that they both learned Latin by immersion! And clearly neither one ever translated anything into English! 🙂

      As a “Third Alternative,” Tres Columnae is absolutely designed to be a space where both “insiders” and “outsiders” are welcome, and where they come together to form a Joyful Learning Community. Thanks again for being part of that community!

  2. […] plagued language teachers, especially teachers of Latin and Greek? I talked about our approach in this post and this one.   Tres Columnae rejects extreme, “my way or the highway” positions in […]


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